HOLLYWOOD – It was Edward G. Robinson on the phone.
There’d been a raffle in the staff canteen over at Warner Bros in aid of orphaned goats and he’d won two tickets to the circus. Tod Browning had offered him $20 for the pair but dear Ed was giving me first refusal.
Everyone in Tinsel Town knew of my love for the big top. My darling mother had been a bearded lady and one of my fathers had left the adoring crowds open mouthed and speechless by riding the strong man bareback. I asked Groucho Marx to come along with me even though I knew his pathological fear of clowns meant I would have to hold his hand the whole time.
But what a night! And what a show! We went backstage after to congratulate the artists who kindly presented us with a tiger. This is the circus folk’s traditional way of asking you to stop making eyes at Sandra The Sword Swallowing Sylph and kindly leave. We finally managed to lose it on the set of Bringing up Baby where I’m afraid it caused all sorts of problems for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and Groucho later turned the entire incident into that marvellous picture Nights at the Circus.
I spoke to my lawyer about it but was poorly advised and ended up trying to sue him for regicide.
But that’s another story…
Many of the better actors I’ve worked with over the years have what one can only describe as a love/hate relationship with journalists, but not me: I love them! Not the ones who say nasty things of course, they’re a bunch of untalented, lazy, useless shits, but the rest of them are jolly good chaps.
Journalists are always quite easy to spot because when you’re at an interview or a press conference, they’re the ones who tend to ask an awful lot of questions. I met one once who had a job writing articles for the newspapers, and he was fascinating. Apparently everything they come up with is actually based on a true story, so it’s not that different to being in the movies really. I’ll tell you who didn’t like journalists though, and that was Clark Gable.
If he saw one coming toward him in the street he’d hide in a doorway to avoid them. If that didn’t work he’d just punch them in the face and run off, but when he twisted his ankle teaching Edward G. Robinson the rhumba he had to get a bus instead. It wasn’t the same.
Playing a journalist in a picture isn’t too difficult, you just need to wear your shirt sleeves rolled up and undo your tie a bit. Dustin Hoffman once told me that he played one in All The President’s Men, but I don’t remember them being that small. Not one of the Munchkins ever played a journalist, so maybe he was pulling my leg. I’m not saying all journalists are giants, in fact most of the ones I’ve stopped to have a drink with have been what I’d call an average height, but you never ever see a short one. Apart from Danny DeVito in LA Confidential. And Tintin.
There was one occasion when a journalist treated me very shabbily indeed, and that’s when he misquoted me when I said Elizabeth Taylor was a witch. But that’s another story…
I’ll never forget the first time I met Edward G. Robinson. It was either a Monday or a Thursday, probably in the 1930s but it could’ve been the ‘40s, and I was wearing my lucky bow tie. I tell a lie, it was Jimmy Stewart, the year was 1950, and I was dressed in a bunny costume for my lead role in Harvey.
Film historians now quite rightly recognise this masterpiece as the Brokeback Mountain of its day, exploring a love that dare not speak its name between a functioning alcoholic and his pet rabbit. Although the script never explicitly mentioned the word ‘bestiality’ I was in no doubt at all about the importance of the issue we were exploring and it had Oscars written all over it.
Luckily I’ve never felt embarrassed shooting love scenes, but when I started improvising and humping Jimmy’s leg the director shouted cut almost immediately and it never made the final edit. Sadly the carrot scene went as well, but Mr Ed the talking horse told me it moved him to tears. Some say Harvey was my finest performance, and sweating away in the costume I have to say I really felt I got under the skin of that character.
It was Jimmy’s idea to have my name removed from both the title sequence and the end credits to help the audience believe that Harvey was indeed a real rabbit, and to this day people are surprised to find out it was me! I did develop a severe addiction to lettuce which led to years of electric shock therapy, but that’s another story…